Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 17;   April 27, 2005: Questioning Questions

Questioning Questions

by

In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.

The waiter arrived with the cold drinks and started dealing them out. That usually meant that the sandwiches were close behind. The great service was one reason they all liked Mike's.

A tournament"Good question," said Kevin, pulling a pen from his pocket. "Napkin, James." James was closest to the napkin dispenser.

So he obliged. "Ah, the old back-of-the-napkin trick," said James. "Can't do it in your head, eh Kev?"

Marian loved watching these two go at each other. They were having fun.

Kevin was thinking, pen poised. "Marian, tell us one more time," he said.

"OK," she said. "64 teams in the tournament. Single elimination. How many games total will they play?"

Kevin thought there was a trick. "So, 32 games in the first round, 16 in the second…like that?"

Before Marian could answer, James solved the riddle. "63 total games," he said, smiling at Kevin. "Next question."

Stung, Kevin looked at James. "How'd you do that?"

James was in his glory. "Easy. Single elimination. Everybody but the winner has to lose once." He smiled again.

Sometimes, especially in meetings, we ask questions for which we don't really need the answers. Like Kevin, we believe we need the answers, but we're mistaken. And sometimes we ask questions for reasons that are even less straightforward.

One-upsmanship
We're hoping to catch somebody "not knowing" or better yet, being wrong.
Stalling
Sometimes we ask questions
when we don't really need
the answers
We want to keep everyone occupied while we think things through, or until word on an important issue arrives by instant message.
Hogging
We realize that spending time on other issues leaves less time for the group to focus on us.
Piling on
We're hoping that the volume of questions about someone's task will create an impression that success is in doubt.
Astuteness proof
We believe that very few will understand the question we're asking, which will demonstrate yet again that we're so clever that we ought to be in charge of the galaxy. Or at least this team.

Even when the questioner's motives are pure, we can sometimes experience questions as attacks. When we do, we can become fearful or defensive, and the conversation can take a wrong turn.

There is a better way.

Instead of asking others for information, give information about your own internal state. If you're truly confused or ignorant about something, say so. Tell the group, "I don't understand that." Or, "It seems to me that X conflicts with Y."

If the group can clarify things for you, they will. If not, most will turn to the person who's responsible for the item, and then it will be clear that your muddle isn't just your own muddle.

When we replace questions with statements of personal ignorance or confusion, there are many fewer questions, many fewer statements of ignorance, and meetings go faster. Seems obvious to me. Or maybe I just don't understand why we ask each other so many questions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Email Antics: IV  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenjwQyqLNcRrzEbWbBner@ChacTwNxbLZtwaTAXTDsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Thank You!Appreciations
When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
What not to eat on the phone: Peanut butterVirtual Communications: III
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
Doodles by T.D. Lee, created while working with C.N. YangDismissive Gestures: III
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
A daffodilTwelve Tips for More Masterful Virtual Presentations: I
Virtual presentations are like face-to-face presentations, in that one (or a few) people present a program to an audience. But the similarity ends there. In the virtual environment, we have to adapt if we want to deliver a message effectively. We must learn to be captivating.

See also Effective Communication at Work, Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenImqabnpzQGDdKnCYner@ChacWWadPqILeUrvpFKHoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.